At the introductory part of our analysis of the reasons for the fall of the roman empire we decided to focus on definitions: what do we mean by fall of the Roman empire? Which roman empire the west or the eastern half? We decided to focus somewhat on internal symptoms and causes.
A whole section is deserved to considering external factors and causes which brought the fall of the Roman empire. What follows will hardly do the subject justice but it will give some insights of where to look for deeper answers. The reasoning might go something like the following:
Great cataclysms like the fall of the Roman empire are never the result of a single action or cause but rather the result of an accumulated factors and events. Many of the factors may have existed at other times, but it took a singular set of events and situations to produce the tsunami sufficient to change the course of ancient Roman history.
Whilst the internal factors were bringing a gradual dismembering of society and the unitary fabric which had made Rome the world power that it was it’s very size brought it face to face with a new arena, literally of global proportions so that we might say that the history of Europe somehow starts in China.
The Chinese empire had begun to suffer at approximately the same time as that of Rome, and just like the Roman built the “Limes” so the Chinese had built (over a longer period of time) a great wall to define the limits of their expansion. Whilst such earthen walls were initially intended to support an expansionist policy it only took a few conservative generations to turn them into a stone affair intended to keep the “barbarians” out. In this case the barbarians were the Mongols, nomadic, savage populations which rampaged the border lands and around the end of the 3rd century AD were jumping over or going around the Chinese wall like a Gymkhana obstacle race. They were eventually beaten out by another barbarian race known as the Juan-Juan who reunited China. So what has this to do with the fall of the Roman empire?
Mongol pressure on the Roman Empire of the West
Other than some interesting similarities with the fate of ancient Rome what was of particular concern at the time was the fact that these Mongol nomadic tribes had little else to do but to chose to learn how to become farmers or turn their attention westwards: By the middle of the 4th century the great invasion began which would change the shape of the centuries to come (the early Middle Ages) like a game of dominoes. As discussed the Roman empire was already overstretched, military forces were at best heterogeneous mix of barbarian mercenaries and sedentary Roman militia so it wouldn’t take long before the Mongols were pressing their way to the river Danube and Elbe (runs through Czech Republic, Germany and into the North Sea) .
This wasn’t the very first incursion: a smaller earlier one was undertaken by eastern tribes which came to be known as the Huns. They came face to face with Germanic tribes and stopped, perhaps Rome was never even aware of it. This time round the balance of power was rather different.
In 395 a Roman soldier and historian called Ammianus Marcellinus reported the terrifying apparition of the Huns (Mongols) – a frightening description of them is given in “Roman History book 31 chapter 2”. He goes on to describe how the Huns united with a Germanic tribe known as the Alani and together drove out the Goths. The Goths driven out were the next piece in the Domino game of history:
The Goths were of Swedish origin and region of that country still bears the descriptive name of “Gotaland”. They too were of nomadic habits and generally illiterate well into the 4th century AD. It wasn’t until the 6th century that one of them, Jordanes (who had picked up the culture and civilisation from Rome), wrote their hitherto oral history/mythology down in a book known as “Getica“: somewhere around the 4th century BC their king Berig had led his countrymen down from Scandinavia into Germany.
The story goes they only had three ships to ferry them across the north sea to Germany. One of these ships was consistently the slowest and so the crews of the other two ships named the third “Gepanta” – the lasy one. The Goths were subdivided into tribes who’s name varied during the centuries according to the regions they inhabited but the ones of real interest to us are the Visigoths (Goths of the west), Ostrogoths (of the East) and Gepids (the lazy ones).
Their role in the fortunes and misfortunes of society after the fall of the roman empire is complex: they participated in numerous incursions into the empire, in 451 they actually joined forces with the Romans against the Huns (see the great battle of the Catalaunian plains against Attila); last but not least their kings such as Theodoric the Great (an Ostrogoth) even ruled over Italy (AD 493-526) and great parts of Europe.
However their history was largely tied to the decline and fall of western Romanised society and they too were doomed to disappear: by the 8th century they had been largely destroyed together with their faith in Christian Arianism.
Please feel free to write to us with ideas and opinions. We’d be happy to update and amend the debate around the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire.
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:
link to: society after the fall of the roman empire